Gilbey on Film: The eyes have it

Ocular obsessions in cinema.

"Scopophilia" is the term, popularised by film theorists, which describes the pleasure derived from looking (with its close cousin voyeurism key to the audience's relationship with the living dead on screen). But with it comes an inherent sensitivity to the damage which can be wrought on our eyes. Small wonder that so many filmmakers have taken such delight in probing and poking our peepers like sadistic ophthalmologists; any on-screen assault or injury can be keenly felt in the stalls, but one aimed directly at the very instruments of our enjoyment is guaranteed to treble the wince factor.

The second half of this year has been dominated for me by a rather nasty eye injury and subsequent surgery, which has given me plenty of time to reflect on the act of looking in cinema, and to daydream about the use and abuse of eyes in movies. At heart, every film is concerned with looking (even Derek Jarman's Blue, with its unchanging wash of colour) so anyone programming a festival devoted to the subject of eyes would need to be especially far-sighted.

The list of optical highlights I've compiled below omits this year's examples: We Need to Talk About Kevin cleverly substituted the peeling and eating of a lychee for an act of eye-related violence; Final Destination 5, which I didn't see, apparently featured an eye operation that goes wrong (reason enough for me to avoid the picture, though the addition of 3-D made watching it a practical impossibility); Julia's Eyes, about a woman suffering from a degenerative eye disease, featured a staggeringly nasty (non-CGI) moment in which the tip of a knife is held to the heroine's eyeball.

My list addresses moments rather than themes. After all, there are plenty of movies with blindness at their core: Magnificent Obsession, The Miracle Worker, Wait Until Dark, Blink, Afraid of the Dark (which offered a nice in-joke by casting Hilary Mason, the blind psychic from Don't Look Now, as the sole sighted character in the film's deranged second half) and, yes, Blindness. But any film can play on the vulnerability of our eyes, as this list demonstrates. There's surely enough here for a miniature film festival, even excluding optically-based films such as Iris, Apt Pupil, The Shop Around the Cornea and Disney's That Darn Cataract...


1.Un Chien Andalou

Too obvious? Then here's the Pixies performing "Debaser," their ferocious tribute to Buñuel and Dali's eye-watering short.

2. The Terminator: Arnie goes Andalou.

3.Gothic: An eyeful from the late Ken Russell

4. Pan's Labyrinth: The Pale Man - not easily palmed off.

5.They Live: The future's so Right, you've gotta wear shades.

6. A Clockwork Orange: Viddy this.

7.Les amants du Pont-Neuf: Juliette Binoche defers instant coolness on the monocular.

8. A Scanner Darkly: Night of a thousand eyes.

9. The Birds: Socket to 'em.

10. Broadway Danny Rose
Tina: "They shot him in the eyes."
Danny: "So he's blind?"
Tina: "Dead."
Danny: "Dead, of course, because the bullets go right through ..."

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge